“A Transition That Happens When the Kid Becomes the Adult in the Relationship”: DP Greta Zozula on Fairyland
Based on Alysia Abbott’s 2013 memoir of the same name, Andrew Durham’s feature debut Fairyland chronicles Alysia’s (Emilia Jones) coming of age after the death of her mother. More specifically, Fairyland explores the complicated relationship between Alysia and her father Steve (Scoot McNairy), who relocates with her to San Francisco in the ’70s and begins to openly date men and adopt a distinctly bohemian lifestyle.
DP Greta Zozula tells Filmmaker about the various aesthetic choices made to capture this touching true story.
See all responses to our annual Sundance cinematographer interviews here.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Zozula: I have no idea what led to me being hired for this but I do know that Andrew and I got along from the very first meeting we had. He is a very creative person and so easy to talk to. Andrew being a photographer made it super easy to start talking specifics when it came to camera wants and needs. I believe the first thing we talked about was digital vs. film and ways of making the digital work for a period movie. Andrew had concerns with the “digital look” working and we came up with creative ways of using it. I was lucky that he chose me to collaborate on this with him. He challenged me to be my best and I’m really proud of what we achieved together.
Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?
Zozula: To take the audience on an emotional journey through Alysia’s POV celebrating San Francisco, while touching on an important part of history through her relationship with her dad. We started with figuring out how to capture these moments through her literal POV and then how to evolve that POV as she gets older. This includes how she sees her dad. Steve is a central character but we always see him through her. As she starts to see things differently, we start to view Steve differently as well. One way we talked about executing this was through compositional changes. Starting with low angles, looking up a lot. We find Alysia when she’s five and very small so her POV is looking up at things and up at her dad. Once she’s a teenager, her and her dad are pretty eye to eye so we leveled off the angles and made sure everything was at eye level and neutral. Towards the end Alysia is looking down at her dad. I think this visual arc is very relatable to how most people perceive their own parents as they get older. A transition that happens when the kid becomes the adult in the relationship.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, or photography, or something else?
Zozula: References came from everywhere. We talked about Pretty Baby, Paris, Texas, Nan Goldin, Beau Travail, Fish Tank, Control to name a few. All for different reasons and mostly for inspiration. Pretty Baby, Paris, Texas and Nan Golden were pretty big lighting and color references for the earlier scenes shot on 16mm. Control, Beau Travail and Fish Tank were stronger references for when Alysia is a teenager to the end of the film. We also looked at a ton of photography from many different books in reference to set design and costume design.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Zozula: It’s always time and money. This film was ambitious because it spans multiple decades and we had exteriors in both San Francisco, Paris and NYC. Cars are a big challenge and finding creative ways of showing a big city, which is a character in itself, when you have to shoot around so much in order for it to fit the period. Another challenge was in order to maximize our days we had to shoot young Alysia (eight years old) in the morning and older Alysia (20 years old) in the afternoon. Both on different formats and completely different lighting looks and design looks. This resulted in feeling like we were actually making two movies at the same time.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Zozula: We shot half the film on Arriflex 416 and the other half on ARRI ALEXA mini. We knew right away that the first act wanted to be shot on 16mm film but also that Fairyland needed to go on a visual journey of maturity that mirrored Alysia growing up. First, you think about the beginning and how that wants to feel and then you think about the journey and where you want to end up. In the script, you get so much nostalgia and sense of a happy but complex childhood seen through a kid’s POV in the beginning and as Alysia grows up you start to see it in a more mature realistic POV. Choosing film to digital as part of that arc made sense because it’s a maturity in mediums that draws you closer to today. The idea being, film is the past and digital is the present. The goal was by the end of the movie, the beginning felt like a memory and the ending felt like “now” even though in the movie we are still in the early 90s at this point.
We shot on a mix of Ultra 16s and Zeiss Super Speeds. With the exception of the Ultras, which were used for scenes in the beginning of the film, we wanted to stick with the same lens set for the whole film as to not change the eyes so much but rather use focal length and f/stop to change how much we see. Another reason we shot on 16mm film in the beginning, in combination with wider focal lengths, this format really allows you to keep everything in focus, the world around Alysia is very much in focus and we see more of it and how tiny she is in it. As we progress, the focal lengths slowly become a little longer, narrowing in on Alysia and less on the world around her becoming more intimate. Supers are great at being pretty sharp and clean when stopped down and as you open them up they start to fall apart and can also have a dreamy quality to them. Being able to really control that throughout this film was pretty key. One example is we shot at a T1.3 for all of the France scenes and this section is pretty romanticized and the softness of the lenses at T1.3 really leaned into this dreamy feel without changing filtration or lens type.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Zozula: Just like our lenses and format we treated lighting as a tonal tool and used it to progress as Alysia grows up. There are five major progressions in this film and they each have a color palette and specific lighting quality to them. For young Alysia we started with red and warm tones with harder sun lit rooms to neutral and blue/green tones with equally neutral lighting. Teenage Alysia is cooler tones overall but with splashes of neon colors, overall this section has a bit more contrast in lighting. France leaned into a classic warm with blue accents for evening scenes and warm sun kissed exteriors, lighting staying soft. The last act is cooler overall, lighting is softer but leans into the shadows a bit more.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Zozula: I would say the arrival at the first apartment when Alysia and Steve first get to San Francisco. We are introducing the audience and young Alysia to this new world and doing so in her POV. It was important to be low angle and wide to really feel her perspective and give a sense of excitement, fear and chaos while introducing new characters. A lot to establish in one scene.
Our approach was to light two floors and five spaces that we could shoot in 360 and be able to see the ceilings and floors. How does one light this?? My incredible Chief Lighting Technician Mina Stollery and Key Grip Forrest Penny-Brown with their amazing crew and the clever art dept, came up with magical ways of hiding lights. We had a mix of exterior lights on a couple lifts with sprinkled practicals inside and the rest were hidden throughout. On top of that, I was operating HH on our Arriflex 416. The shot starts at the bottom of some twisty stairs in which one set of coverage I had to walk backwards—this takes us to Alysia’s bedroom, then we proceed to follow our character Paulette who is giving the tour through a hallway into another room where we establish our next character Johnny. Dancing with the boom operator, director and actors. All of this had to happen in a very limited amount of time as it was only 1/3rd of our day, we still had a format change from 16mm to digital, a decade changeover that included costume changes and makeup changes for Scoot on top of about 20 extras, a location move that required about the same amount of lighting and prep as the previous scene to complete the day. I have to say that everyone in every department worked so incredibly hard on this day and on this film in general and pulled off things that I could have never imagined were possible. When I say they did magical things I’m not exaggerating. The production was so tiny and we didn’t have additionals most days or rigging crews. It took incredible organization from every member of the team and so much prep and I’m incredibly humbled by their dedication and talent.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Zozula: We didn’t have a comprehensive show LUT for the film because we simply didn’t have time to create one that worked for everything. We had such a fast prep and just had to go with what we had. I did however speak with our colorist Sam Daley during prep to discuss approach and intentionality and how best to treat the 16mm film to digital transition. When we got into the DI we didn’t start from “scratch” but we did have to create a look. This changed how we approached some scenes but we never reinvented anything. I would say there was a lot of polishing and dialing in the final look in the DI.
Film Title: Fairyland
Camera: ARRIFLEX 416 and ARRI ALEXA MINI
Lenses: Ultra 16s and Super Speeds
Lighting: mix of LED technology, Fresnel and HMI
Processing: Fotokem LA
Color Grading: Light Iron – Sam Daley